Five Questions with Meg Saligman, Muralist and Conservation Advocate
August 7, 2014
Meg Saligman is an award winning artist at the forefront of the contemporary mural movement in Philadelphia. She is recognized worldwide for her work with light, paint, glass, buildings, and people. Meg is known for her exceptionally large scale, site specific work, including the nation's largest publicly funded mural for the new millennium, Once in a Millennium Moon in Shreveport, Louisiana, and her landmark mural, Common Threads, in Philadelphia. A painter at heart, Meg loves local color and incorporates what is distinctive about a place and its people, into the creative process.
While Meg's artwork is internationally known, her advocacy for art preservation and collaboration with conservators may be less widely appreciated. In addition to recognizing the need for ongoing care of her finished works, Meg has incorporated conservation methodology and practice into her process of creation and deeply values a continued dialogue with her colleagues in the field. On June 11, Meg came to speak at the Smithsonian American Art Museum on her work and involvement in preserving public art. We asked Meg to answer some questions for a bit more insight into her process and collaboration with the conservation field. Here's what we found out.
Eye Level: When you began creating murals, did you envision that you would be working with conservators to preserve your artwork?
Meg Saligman: I didn't have any inkling that I would one day be working with conservators to preserve my own work. When I began painting murals, I was just trying to figure out how to paint a wall for the first time. There is definitely a learning curve to best practices when making a mural. When I began painting murals in the late 1980s, there was nowhere to go to learn how to paint a large exterior surface. It was an experiment and a journey just to keep paint on the walls. The longevity of the work was low priority when I first began.
A turning point for me was meeting Dr. Joyce Hill Stoner, from the Winterthur Art Conservation Program at the University of Delaware. Joyce saw me give a talk and immediately knew that she could help mural artists with her conservation background. She understood that muralists needed a familiarity with preservation while they were originally creating the work if they wanted a chance to have a painting survive in the exterior. Dr. Stoner and her graduate students actually started recording what I was doing while I was doing it. That was quite a new notion to me. When I realized that there were experts who work to figure out the variables behind longevity, it was an epiphany.
The fact that highly skilled professionals and communities would devote their time and resources to preserve my work is one of the greatest professional honors I have experienced. It is important to note that conservators have worked with me not only after I was finished the work, but also while I was creating it. I think the fact that exterior acrylic murals have such short lives, 10-30 years without being restored, is probably the largest factor that contributes to my working with conservators within my lifetime. I would like to say that this collaboration is due to the genius of my creations, yet I learn and grow from every instance of the artist/conservator dialogue. I am surprised, grateful and delighted to be working as a living artist with the conservation community.
EL: Preserving public art can pose a wide range of challenges. What are the most pervasive issues to prevent?
MS: The most pervasive problem for exterior murals (specifically) is that they simply do not have a long life expectancy, at least not in terms of preservation. They will fade and deteriorate with sun, weather, and pollution. I have come to terms with the fact that different murals have different lengths of life. A wonderful thing about murals is they have a very bright life. In most sites they're seen by a vast array of people for a pretty significant amount of time. With that said, I also believe that the very few murals that deserve a beloved or landmark status can, and should, be kept in good shape, with regular maintenance, for decades upon decades.
Pubic art will have wear and tear in the public realm, which is the nature of the beast. A wide spread problem is that a lot of work has no maintenance plan in place after it is created. Even the most durable work will need a regular routine of TLC, whether it is once a month or once every five years. I say plan ahead: put a small amount of your budget aside and let it grow for future maintenance. This truly is the way to go. I do confess however that in my entire career I have never succeeded in convincing anyone to do this.
Issues may occur based on where a public work resides. In a mural's case, anything that happens to the building can affect the painting. Does the building ownership change hands? Does the building fall down and the mural with it? We know places change all the time. We also know that this is not a bad thing, and I would never say that development should be prevented. But losing some murals would be a great loss if they were to go. A careful assessment that will facilitate conscious decisions about what work should be preserved is crucial. You may not preserve every work and that is okay. I would say the goal should be preventing heartbreak within communities created by careless actions, decisions, or maintenance.
EL: Your work with the Philadelphia Mural Arts Program (MAP) has produced amazing artworks. As MAP is so invested in community outreach and interaction, do you, as the artist, rely on your murals' neighboring communities to act as caretakers of their art?
MS: My work with the Philadelphia Mural Arts Program has had wide reaching impact in the fields of murals and conservation. The Mural Arts Program is solidly entrenched within the Philadelphia community in many diverse neighborhoods. When you work within communities, you understand that it is they who will play a large part in the preservation of the public work. Throughout my career, it has always been the local person who made the work with me, who gives me a call when something on the work needs to be maintained or adjusted. It is the neighbor to a mural who watches out for it and protects it from people, weather, and building owner change. I believe it is also the communities themselves that should be deciding what public works get preserved and which ones don't. The Mural Arts Program has a vast number of public works that should be preserved, as do I. Perhaps, some of the works should be taken away, replaced, or changed. There is no one solution to what works should be preserved and what should not, but a thorough assessment is key. The community should have a prominent voice in deciding what works do end up being preserved. By default, the communities become the caretakers of the work because they're on the front lines. The community lives with it and so perhaps feel its effects most strongly.
EL: From a conservation standpoint, what is the one piece of advice you would impart to other muralists?
MS: Do it right the first time. Work alongside conservators while you make the mural. Having longevity in mind throughout the creation process will guide you in using the best materials and keeping good records for future conservators who may want to treat and restore the piece. Preserving a mural will always be difficult, but the process can be made less difficult by using the best materials and practices the first time around.
EL: Art conservation has an extensive network of resources for artists and collectors to consult. If an artist, or mural enthusiast is interested in learning more about how to care for their artwork, where would you recommend they look?
MS: There are extensive resources for artists and collectors to consult. If you are an artist or an art organization and you would like to learn more about how to care for a piece of art I would recommend you start with the Rescue Public Murals website's Best Practices section. Both the City of Philadelphia Mural Arts Program and the Chicago Public Art Group, have restoration initiatives, their websites would be a good place to look.